Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Oscar Nominated Short Films


Since our friends Jon and Marion took us to a showing of these films a few years ago at the Academy Theater in Hollywood, we have tried to take in the program before Oscar night. Here in Portland, the Hollywood theatre shows them in the two weeks just before the awards. It’s not the same as going to the Academy, where after the showing all the directors get up on the stage and discuss their little labors of love, but it’s the next best thing.

I have to say that this year’s nominees are not quite as good as last year’s. In neither category did one film just jump out from the pack and seem to be the obvious choice, as “Mr. Hublot” and “Helium” did last year. As usual, there were a few I didn’t even like very much. But I’m glad we went, as always.


“The Bigger Picture” (2014) (UK) (8 minutes) Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees. This is the most artistically interesting of the bunch. It is a very strange blend of stop-motion and painted animation. The story is a real downer, though, concerning two brothers trying to decide whether or not to put their old mother in a nursing home.

“The Dam Keeper” (2014) (USA) (18 minutes) Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi. Second best, artistically speaking. Very lovely to look at. A little pig is the caretaker of a windmill atop a huge dam that overlooks a little town. The dam is not keeping back water, though, but some noisome undefined substance. He must wind up the windmill every day or the town will be inundated. But no one likes him. He’s dirty from all the hard work. All the other animals at school torment him until a fox arrives and befriends him. But when he thinks she has betrayed him, he neglects the windmill. There is a happy ending, which is far from guaranteed in films like this.

“Feast” (2014) (USA) (6 minutes) Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed. This is from Disney Studios. It’s a very simple story of a little puppy who is in dog heaven because his master feeds him all the horrible, unhealthy stuff he loves. Then the man gets involved with a health food nut, and the grub turns just awful. Compromise is reached in the end. It’s a sweet little film with excellent animation … but it’s Disney, what did you expect? I hope it doesn’t win, because I feel awards like these ought to go to the little guys with no money who work themselves into exhaustion day after day, with little reward to be anticipated for their labors.

“Me and My Moulton” (2014) (Norway, Canada) (14 minutes) Torill Kove. Three sisters try to convince their New Agey parents that they would like a bicycle, which they would share. Eventually the parents get one, a Moulton, one of those odd-looking re-designed bikes that all the trendy people ride. The girls realize Mom and Pop have bought the bike they would like to have, instead of the old-fashioned Schwinn-type velocipede the girls would have liked. But they make the best of it.

“A Single Life” (2014) (Netherlands) (3 minutes) Joris Oprins. SPOILER. Cute and funny, and much too short to win the Oscar, IMO. A woman is given a record that is a time machine. Depending on where the needle drops, she changes her age. Hmmm. Possibilities here! Experimenting, she jogs the player and it skips to near the end, and there she is bent over in a walker. She starts toward the player to move it back and make herself younger … and the record starts to skip. Every time it skips she is hurled back in space, too far from the record! It looks like she will be Sisyphus, or Tantalus if you prefer, doomed to never reach her goal. Then she figures out how to do it, she finally makes it to the player, reaches for the tone arm … which drops onto the very end, and she transforms into a funerary urn. The End.

My Choice: “The Dam Keeper.”

Because the five nominated films often don’t add up to a very long program, the people who assemble these films sometimes include some of the Honorable Mentions. There were four of them this year:

“Sweet Cocoon” (France) (6 minutes) Matéo Bernard, Mathias Bruget, Jonathan Duret, Manon Marco, Quentin Puiraveau. An overweight caterpillar finds he can’t squeeze into his cocoon. A couple of bugs help him out. There is a surprise ending I didn’t see coming, and it’s funny. The animation reminded me of A Bug’s Life.

“Footprints” (USA) (4 minutes) Bill Plympton. This is one of two shorts that employ that maddening technique I think of as “jiggle-mation.” For some reason, each cel of character animation is just a little off from the previous one, even in static scenes. This is distracting, disorienting, and totally uncalled for. It would not even have been funny or compelling in any way if it were conventionally animated. Fuck this one.

“Duet” (USA) (4 minutes) Glen Keane. Very pretty, and very forgettable. A boy and a girl grow up, dancing. It is all white drawing against a blue background, quite pretty to watch, though I kept thinking I’d seen it somewhere before. The animation reminded me of parts of Fantasia.

“Bus Story” (Canada) (11 minutes) Another jiggle-mation thing, damn it. If not for that, it would have been funny and interesting. Fuck this one, too.


“Aya” (2012) (France, Israel) (40 minutes) Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis. By far the longest of the entries, and in my opinion, too long. I think the Academy should limit these films to 30 minutes. That seems like a better definition of “short” to me. Not to say this isn’t a nice little film, odd, but just odd enough, the way I like it. You’ve seen those guys standing around in airports with signs, drivers looking for the people they’re supposed to be picking up. Aya is standing with some of them, waiting for someone herself, when one guy asks her to hold his sign while he goes and moves his limo, which is about to be towed away. When the client, Mr. Overby, shows up, she impulsively doesn’t tell him she’s not his driver. He needs to go to Jerusalem, which is fairly distant. The body of the film is the two of them in the car, talking. They make a connection, and she leaves him at his hotel and goes to park the car. She has told him she will be back … but will she? We never find out who she was picking up, but we do find out if she will join him in his room.

“Boogaloo and Graham” (2014) (UK) (14 minutes) Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney. Parents should never give their kids adorable little chicks, because they will soon turn into filthy, stupid chickens. But this indulgent father does, and his wife hates them, wants to chop off their heads and serve them up, until one of them lays an egg. Later it is revealed that the old man was sneaking an egg into the chicken coop every morning for years. This one is really a minor effort, I thought

“Parvaneh” (2012) (Switzerland, German language) (25 minutes) Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger. Parvaneh is the name of a young Afghan girl who has made her way to Switzerland and is working illegally to buy medicine for her sick father back home in hell. She tries to wire the money, but without papers she isn’t allowed to. In her halting German she tries to enlist strangers to help her, and finally settles on a punk goth about her own age. I have to say I expected the worst, but was surprised. The girls become fast friends. A simple story, well told.

“The Phone Call” (2013) (UK) (20 minutes) Mat Kirkby and James Lucas. The toughest of the bunch, and my second favorite. This is the only short that stars actors you might have heard of. Sally Hawkins works at a suicide hotline. She gets a call from a despondent man (Jim Broadbent, who is never seen) who has taken a lot of pills because he can’t find it in himself to go on living without his wife, who died two years ago. Even in this age of caller ID and many other things, they will not trace a call because if they did, who would ever trust them again and call in? So she tries her best to talk him out of it, and/or reveal a clue as to where he is so she can send help. It gets pretty intense … and she is too late. I appreciated the final scene, where she is drinking in a bar after work. It’s a hard job, but she hasn’t allowed herself to be destroyed by it. It is implied that this isn’t the first time she has lost a caller, and it won’t be the last. Her attitude is not “just another day at work.” Obviously she was full of compassion and concern. But to survive this job you must cultivate a sense of “don’t take your job home with you.”

“Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)” (2013) (France, China, Tibetan language) (15 Minutes) Hu Wei and Julien Féret. Some of the best little films have a simple and yet brilliant idea behind them. In this one a static camera never moves throughout the whole movie. It is obviously sitting on a tripod. A large Tibetan family in their ceremonial clothes are posed with the Forbidden City behind them. The photographer fusses with them, and finally takes the picture. The family moves off … and an assistant pulls down a new backdrop! They were posing in front of a giant photograph. Now a new family moves in and poses in front of … the Great Wall, or something like that. We go through quite a few groupings, including a lot of children, each with a different background. One of them is the huge temple at Lhasa, and when an ancient granny sees it behind her she must get on her knees and bow three times. After that no one can prevail on her to turn around and face the camera, so they decide to change the background … to Disneyland! This is so simple and so sweet. At the end the traveling photographer rolls up his backgrounds and reveals … a really spectacular view of the Himalayas! This is Tibet! These people have seen these mountains all their lives. Big deal! They want to pretend they have traveled! I have no idea what the title means (and wouldn’t that be “The Yak Butter Lamp”?), but who cares. This is my choice for the award.

(BTW: FREE TIBET! you murdering Chinese fuckers!)